Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Flying the Coop
Part I of IV

Photos L-R: Huber Matos at his Miami residence and shortly after his arrest in October of 1959.

Forty-six years ago, Juan Eugenio Villalobos was struggling amid the opening salvos of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government when a chance encounter with a friend hoping to oust the strong-arm dictator changed the course of his life. An heir to one of Cuba’s largest industrial operations, Villalobos, then a man of 35, was about to be drawn directly into a drama that played out more like a cloak and dagger paperback thriller than true-life intrigue.

Photo: Juan Villalobos

“I was a man who had never before involved himself in politics” says Juan, now an 81-year-old resident of Miami as he dusts off aging black and white photographs of the shipyards his father, Ramon Villalobos built over the course of 50 years. Until recently, the Cuban government ran the shipyards in a joint operation with the Dutch-owned Curacao Drydock Company, and in 2003, members of the Villalobos family registered the confiscated shipyards with the U.S. State Department’s Helms-Burton unit, intent on rebuilding the family business once the Castro regime falls. Although Villalobos was a self-described “apolitical,” his father’s companies had enjoyed numerous lucrative government contracts over the years. During the final years of the Cuban revolution, the shipyards, located in Havana's Casablanca district, had received a contract to apply armor plating to military trucks. The deal would come back to haunt Astilleros Villalobos and, indeed, the entire Villalobos clan. In April of 1960, the revolutionary government seized onto the possibility that vehicles outfitted at the shipyards might have been used by government forces to “hunt down and kill” rebel soldiers. The fledgling government would use the contracts as a pretext for confiscating the shipyards. Subsequently, a May 1960 issue of Cuba’s Official Gazette listed the “seizure of all equipment, utilities, tools, materials, etc” of Astilleros Villalobos, “known for its docks and factories. . .” Villalobos and his entire family were publicly slandered, put out of work and systematically harassed. One relative had already been sentenced to death over an unrelated issue and thus, Juan had more than enough reason to assist in a plan that would contribute to Fidel’s downfall. Leaning back in his chair, recalling the events of the autumn of 1960, Villalobos remarks that although he never agreed with Matos’ ideology and methods, he appreciated the way in which he would eventually confront Castro with allegations of communist infiltration in the new government. “It wasn’t vengeance that motivated me. It was a desire to do what was right for Cuba.”

Photo at left: The 1960 copy of Cuba's Official Gazette listing the seizure of the Villalobos Shipyards and a photo of a ship under construction (circa 1957).

On January 8, 1959, Huber Matos, formerly a teacher in Cuba’s Oriente Province, rode into Havana atop a U.S.-built Sherman tank alongside a bearded revolutionary named Fidel Castro. Matos, one of the top commanders in Castro’s rebel army, would later be installed as the military commander of Camaguey Province, but fate would deal him a different card. “I had become wary of where the revolution was headed after the tone of certain articles in the military gazette, Verde Olivo, took a decidedly Marxist turn.” On numerous occasions throughout 1959, Matos warned Castro that the revolution was in danger of being hijacked by communists. “He would blow me off, telling me there was nothing to worry about.” Finally, after repeated dismissals by Castro, Huber Matos announced his resignation in a heartfelt letter to Fidel, in which he explained his desire to avoid becoming an obstacle to the revolution. With words that sounded like those coming from a trusted friend, Matos wrote “I also want you to understand that this decision is irreversible, which is why I’m asking you not as Commander Huber Matos, but rather, like any of your friends from the Sierra – Do you remember? . . . . letting me return to my home as a civilian without my children having to hear in the street that their father was a deserter or traitor.” At that point, Matos had no desire to mount an insurrection against his former boss, although nearly 50 years later, Matos has made clear the fact that he would have eventually led his rabidly loyal troops against Castro. Resigning as Camaguey’s military commander, Matos had decided to take up teaching in his childhood home of Manzanillo.

Within 24 hours, a response came from Havana. “Fidel wrote back to me that he accepted my resignation and was sending Camilo [Cienfuegos] to relieve me.” Matos became alarmed by the somewhat insulting tone of the letter, however, and word quickly spread through the Camaguey military barracks that Cienfuegos’ true mission was the arrest of Huber Matos on charges of counter-revolutionary activities. The commander who had won the unflinching loyalty of his troops knew a bloodbath could ensue if he allowed the rumors to spread unchecked and without a personal response. With this in mind, he ordered his troops to stand-down upon the arrival of Cienfuegos, no matter what.

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